One of the common and dangerous misunderstandings of managers in organisations is called correspondence bias[1]. We tend to assuming that someone else’s behaviour (positive or negative) can be attributed to fixed personality traits (for example, the need to control, or risk aversion), while explaining our own bad behaviour as a reaction to circumstances. Gilbert identifies four root causes for our misinterpretation of other people’s behaviour:

  • We lack full awareness of the situation
  • We have unrealistic expectations of them
  • We make exaggerated assessments of behaviour
  • We fail to correct our initial assumptions

Correspondence bias is closely allied to two other unhelpful patterns of thinking: attribution bias and confirmation bias. Attribution bias occurs when we make unevidenced assumptions about other people’s motivations or character. So we tend, for example, to assume that competitors are less moral or hard-working than we are. In the case of direct reports or working colleagues, we often project on them unconscious motivations of our own, which we would prefer not to have or are ashamed of. Confirmation bias occurs when we only notice behaviour that reinforces an opinion we have about someone and ignore all the evidence to the contrary.

As a coach or mentor, we can help clients overcome these narrow and judgemental mindset by helping them to become more self-aware of how these biases arise and play out in their interactions with colleagues.

A first step is to normalise the process, by which these biases arise – for example, with some examples of your own. An example might be: “When I see you take time to answer my questions, my first instinct is to assume that you are avoiding being honest with yourself, because that is what I have encountered with another client. But I know that an alternative explanation (one of many possibles) is that you are actually doing the opposite – taking time to reflect deeply and take a good look at what is going on for you inside.”

Knowing that we all regularly fall into these biases allows the client to give themselves permission to explore key relationships in their own workplace.

Next, you can encourage them to name one or two positive and negative traits they ascribe to colleagues, who they see as difficult. Now ask them to provide at least 10 recent examples of these traits in action, both positive and negative. They may struggle to do this, in which case this can be a homework task for them. Stress that it’s important to be looking for examples of both.

Continue with this line of enquiry with questions, such as:

  • What stops you noticing information and examples that disconfirm your perception of this person?
  • How much are you influenced by other people’s perceptions and biases?
  • What broad group(s) would you place this person in? What are your conscious or unconscious assumptions about that group? In what ways might you be confusing your assumptions about that group, with your expectations of the individual?
  • What commonalities of circumstance are there when this person appears to exhibiting the negative trait, and more positive traits?
  • What is the positive side of the negative trait? (Behaviour that annoys us in another person is often the result of over-use of a useful strength.)
  • Who else values this person? What do they see in them that’s different to what you see?
  • What other interpretations (more positive or more negative) might explain their behaviour? What makes each of these explanations more or less credible than others, including the perspective you started with?
  • How could you get to know the values that drive this person? (What’s the conversation you would need to have to find out?)

The aim of this exploration is not necessarily to change their opinion of the other person and their behaviour. It is rather to help them understand that behaviour and develop different strategies for working with it, with a wider range of choices about how they react. If we view the person as having fixed traits, then we close our minds to the possibilities of assisting them to change their behaviours. Taking a situational, contextual perspective enables us to see them as capable of change (which most people are) and to focus on practical ways to assist them in doing so.

The coach-mentor can also act as a role model for the kind of conversation the client can have with colleagues about behaviour. In particular, we can help them become comfortable with differentiating between behavioural intent (the outcome we want to achieve from our behaviour) and behavioural impact (the reactions and interpretations of other people). Having these conversations about their own behaviour equips them with the mental patterns to have similar conversations with direct reports and colleagues, or even with family members.

© David Clutterbuck, 2016



[1] Daniel Gilber & Patrick Malone (1995) The Correspondence Bias, Psychological Bulletin 1171) pp21-38

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